"Painting Is a Medium of Time": A Q&A With Duchamp Prize Nominee Valérie Favre

"Painting Is a Medium of Time": A Q&A With Duchamp Prize Nominee Valérie Favre
Valérie Favre
(Photo by Guy Oberson / Courtesy Galerie Jocelyn Wolff)

On the afternoon that ARTINFO France sat down to talk about her work and her recent nomination for the Prix Marcel Duchamp, Berlin-based Franco-Swiss artist Valérie Favre's experience and artistic confidence could be felt in her raised, but controlled, voice. (The other nominees for the award, which will be presented at FIAC this month, are Bertrand Lamarche, Franck Scurti, and Dewar & Gicquel.) She gives the impression of leaving nothing to chance — except when she does so on purpose. As a woman in a man’s world, Favre is used to competition, and says that she is not stressed out by the upcoming award decision. Her most recent works, black canvases lit up by sparkling paint, can be seen at Galerie Jocelyn Wolff, where this interview was conducted, through November 3.

What work are you showing for the Prix Marcel Duchamp?

Obviously it will be painting! It took a lot of time for me to plan my project. I work alone and my process is slow. It will be a group of paintings and drawings that I made specifically for the Prix Marcel Duchamp. The paintings will be part of the abstract series “Fragments” that I’m currently showing at Galerie Jocelyn Wolff. The drawings are much faster. I use collage and photocopies. They’re like little bombs, where I react to current events and allow myself more humor. Like “Temesta,” which is a reference to anti-depressants. I also gave myself a rule: my project has to be a nod to Marcel Duchamp.

Could you tell us more about “Fragments”?

“Fragments,” as the title suggests, are pieces of a gigantic painting that could be seen as a representation of the universe, of something located elsewhere, but with other rules that I’ll have to invent. I leave freedom of interpretation to the viewer. For these paintings, I wanted to work with ink: black and white. I use chance, water, and air, as in my abstract series “Balls and Tunnels,” where the gradations of color are not deliberate, but depend on the application and the drying of the ink. But there are also mechanical principles: I add oil paint with an electric drill, and the particles stick to the surface of the painting. I don’t decide on the format beforehand. First I paint on the ground and afterwards I cut out the fragments that interest me.

Will this painting exist someday?

No, it’s a virtual painting. I’m reaching towards the infinite. I’m questioning space. Whereas in “Balls and Tunnels,” which I’m producing once a year until my death, I’m questioning time. In my work there are these two very important poles. Two poles that condition human existence. But one idea would be to try to bring these fragments together with computers. The first five are being shown at Jocelyn Wolff, but there will be fifty or so more. This series also lets me experiment with format and the finite.

There are also two paintings on view at Jocelyn Wolff from your “Ghost” series, which you started in 2009.

“Ghost” is about the disappearance of form. I am coming out of imagery of female rabbits or other recurring figures. This corresponds to a development in my artistic practice.

Are you still painting “rabbit universes”?

No, that’s over. But this series of rabbits was very important in my work. The title comes from a pun: in “lapine” (female rabbit), you hear the word “pine” (phallus). In 1998, when I got to Berlin, I met a lot of German artists who asked me, “Does painting exist in France?” “Yes!” I would answer. In this skeptical context, I invented this character of the female rabbit so that she could become my ambassador. These paintings say: “I’m a woman, but I too have a paintbrush!” With a certain humor, and making a hidden statement.

Was it hard to make a name for yourself as a woman painter?

Yes. As women painters, our work can be associated with decoration. Yet practicing painting can also be something else. I had to invent systems and structures in which I could evolve. Hence, the character of the rabbit, among others. And also, perhaps, the subject of my paintings, to prevent my work from being reduced just to its “feminine” aspect. The feminine in painting is very beautiful and mysterious, but the paradox is that as a woman painter one is required to give lots of proof of the quality of our work, which isn’t necessarily the case for men.

What is the origin of your series on suicide?

I’m very interested in current events and geopolitics. Even if it’s not evident at first glance. I feed on what happens, on the Internet and in newspapers. My work is anchored in the present. So this series comes from the increasing media coverage of suicide. I wanted to treat the subject in painting. I chose a standard photography format, 24 by 18 centimeters, and I decided to reduce my color palette to blue, yellow, black, and white, omitting red, to avoid the bloody aspect. The result was a sort of encyclopedia of ways of killing oneself. I take the subjects from society, mythology, novels, operas, and plays. Some suicides are very poetic. Now I am also painting portraits of people who have killed themselves. All these suicides will be shown together at the Peter Kilchmann Gallery in Zurich in January 2013.

People have sometimes associated your work with expressionism or Bad Painting. Where do you think your work fits in, and why have you never taken sides, so to speak, between representation and abstraction?

Painting is a medium. Like photography, video, installation. It’s nothing more, nothing less. There are no problematics of the medium in my work. I want to be very specific about this. For me, the debate on painting is closed. You practice it, period, that’s all. What’s important to me is the poetic strength of the medium. I don’t ask myself questions about representation or abstraction. I paint without scruples, that is, without problems, without qualms — that’s all I can tell you. I don’t question myself about representation or abstraction either. This debate has no meaning in Germany. Just look at what Gerhard Richter has done. I’m more interested in other artistic issues: format and its escape mechanisms and the choice of subject — why choose a subject, this material, this size, such or such a color? With “Balls and Tunnels,” for example, I’m being ironic about my own practice. I ritualize a gesture that I will do until my death. In my large representational battles, I experiment with deformation.

What fascinates you about the act of painting?

I set myself a certain number of rules. There is a structure that varies in each series: the choice of format or palette — I like this difficulty. Painting is a medium of time. It’s a form of political resistance. We live in a society where everything has to be fast. We consume a lot of images, randomly. It’s a luxury, and a freedom, to be able to produce an image with one’s hands, starting with nothing, simply with a material, a canvas, a piece of paper, or a fabric. It’s antithetical to the society that we’re living in. I love getting set up in my studio, in this silence, to make completely different painting in a completely different time. The painting is an image that doesn’t move, which can’t always be understood, but which has an incredible depth.